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Five things the Spartans can do to challenge the 24th-ranked Aztecs

Week 7: the MWC champions could be an underdog from this point on 

SJSU tight end Derrick Deese Jr.
photo by: Jon Austria

Location: CEFCU Stadium – San Jose, CA

Date/Time: Friday, October 15th @ 7:30 PM PDT

Broadcast: CBS Sports Network

Radio: KTRB (860 AM, San Francisco) & Sirius XM Radio Channel 380

Head-to-head: San Diego state holds the historical edge 22-20-2.

The pressure is on for San Jose State (3-3, 1-1 MW) to change their narrative for this season, but how much more difficult will it be for the Spartans facing 24th-ranked San Diego State (5-0, 1-0 MW) Friday night in front an expected large homecoming crowd?

About midway through this season, things seem clear who the Spartans are on paper

So far, they’re a lower scoring team compared to last season. A 20.5 scoring average in 2021 vs. 30.3 point average over the first six games last season.

The notable differences?

There are no star receivers (except perhaps TE Derrick Deese Jr.), less big plays and no Nick Starkel at quarterback the past two games. Basically, the offense is not balancing out the defensive effort.

Even if Starkel can perform and be protected, expect tentativeness coming off an arm injury in such a short time. It doesn’t seem feasible for a comeback this week at least.

Glaringly, there’s more to SJS’ woes in terms of penalties and turnovers:

  • Nearly 75-yards of field position given up each game due to penalties
  • –9 turnover margin (12 fumbles, 6 lost, over 50 points surrendered) is near last in the nation

What does it all mean?

If the Spartans can’t re-discover all the intangibles that put them on the map last year, it looks like a long season.

What are those universal intangibles? It’s basic, really: attitude, effort, communications, and especially, execution - all the stuff there’s no stats for.

San Diego State will either make the obvious look more obvious in their bid to go undefeated or get seriously challenged. It might seem more reasonable to expect the latter this year as a moral victory for the pragmatic.

All said, as the Aztecs are a 9 ½ point favorites, can the Spartans make this a harbinger moment against a nationally ranked team that is quite possibly the best team SJS will face this year?

Five things the Spartans can address to pull off an upset at home

1) Play natural, play loose - With regards to penalties and turnovers, it’s something you can’t overthink as a player, as one can imagine how it can get debilitating in the speed of the game. For us critics, easier said than done in the mental and physical balance to perform. For the players, any schemes or plays should be baked in by now.

2) The Aztecs run and the Aztecs stop the run – This is the simple, hardcore identity of this and any San Diego State team. The legend of head coach Rocky Long lives strong through his successor Brady Hoke. You know exactly who’s walking through that door and exactly what you’re getting, especially from an Aztec team seeking redemption from their big loss to the Spartans last year. Mana-a-mano, head-to-head, my-man-against-your-man – we’ll see who the real Spartans are either way.

3) Nick Nash – Item one above should most definitely apply to Nash. He’s a great natural athlete, but he needs help. Receivers need to rally back to him on plays he’ll extend. Hopefully, OC Kevin McGiven tailored things more to a such a unique mobile quarterback, as it might well be the Spartans biggest factor to pull off the upset. Nash also somehow needs better clarity to see his options and not take it upon himself to do it all. If we see that Nash (and McGiven) can extend the field and stretch the field better than before, it will be huge.

4) Defense wins games – Right, of course. But the offense will be a big part of the defense if they can stay on the field longer and score. If the Spartan offense can’t hold their water, the Spartan defense bending and bowing most of this season may break this time against a super heavy run game. DC Derrick Odum’s 3-4 defense will seriously be put the test. There’s probably less reason to disguise the obvious and maybe time to “borrow” from Long’s vaunted 3-3-5 defensive scheme to hold back the Aztec run game. They just need to stymie the run like they did last year. If you look back at that game, the Aztecs looked shell-shocked by the Spartans’ performance, but that won’t be the case this time around.

5) Special teams – By special teams, it’s Shamar Garrett. All else has been fairly solid. Garrett’s been thrown into the fire more and his results have been mixed this season. Recall last year vs. the Aztecs, Garrett’s special teams play caused a key fumble recovery. He’s also on the fringes seemingly ready to explode at any time on returns. A high confidence game by Garrett is an X-factor for the Spartans to key a win.

One more: A focused, complete four-quarters of play by all, including coaches, is another obvious must. Though players can be often called into question, their counterparts on the sidelines and in the booth have a big responsibility to interact and perform altogether just as well.